Once upon a time . . . a time when the phrase ‘once upon a time’ was something new and exciting to hear, there was a good King and Queen who were blessed with a good daughter. Everyone agreed she was a beautiful child and if all went well, would become a beautiful woman. In those days, beauty for a princess was like flies to frog, necessary for survival. Their first mistake, as King Ruairi would later acknowledge, was naming her Caoinlan, a name when given to a female was considered to mean “fair with comely shape”. But when Caoinlan was born she was not so much aware of the difference between females and males, being that she was an infant and not so much aware of the often inane ways of the world. And her name had another meaning, more often thought of when attached to male baby, “strong as a wolf”.
So, to please her parents, she grew up fair with a comely shape and to please herself, she grew up as strong as a wolf. To please her tutors, she also grew up clever and to please the people, humble. The only person not pleased, as she would make known to anyone within earshot even if she had to raise her voice a bit to be heard, was the old queen, the King’s mother, Draigen. She saw from the start that Caoinlan was not like the other princesses and got on to disapproving of it well before anyone else.
But for many years, King Ruairi and Queen Saorla politely ignored the Old Queen’s warnings and allowed Caoinlan to roam the Palace like any child might. She climbed to the highest towers and flew through the courtyards on her long legs, her arms gliding out at her sides like a bird. She muddied her finest dresses and tore her delicate stockings, so that she was forced to spend much of her time under her grandmother’s sharp observance darning those same stockings, learning those skills a young woman should learn. Caoinlan really learned that it was far easier to leave off stockings all together, to avoid holes in the first place.
Caoinlan only had the servant and village children to play with, as her parents were unable to produce any more children, though not for want of trying or lack of love between them. And though her stern grandmother complained, the King and Queen could not bring themselves to separate Caoinlan from her playmates, no matter how low their station, how poor their education, or how wanting their hygiene. Thus, the princess’ closest friend was a stable boy, Begley, who was all awkward angles and stank of horses and more often the less attractive end as it was his duty to clean the stalls each and every day.
While he might’ve had many more chores to attend, and might’ve received many more beatings from the stablemaster Nolan, Caoinlin was heard to remark in Nolan’s presence, “A foal is given time and space to romp and play before it is trained to bear the bit, I should think any human child is as good as a horse. After all, a strong wolf would tear them both to pieces just the same. But if they are weakened by premature labor, made skinny and covered in welts, then the clever hound would stalk a something more filling with a big gut thick with fat.”
Upon hearing the princess, Nolan would rub his rotund belly and grind his flat yellow teeth and send one of the older stable boys to fetch the water and bring in the hay, leaving Begley free to attend the princess.
The stablemaster wasn’t afraid of little girls, even a spoiled, unruly princess such as Caoinlin. And anyway, Begley was hardly enough of a boy to lift a shovel of manure, and not worth the sweat it brought to Nolan’s forehead to whip. Besides, he knew that soon enough, the princess would grow and become a lady and Begley would realize that he was no better than the less attractive end of the shakiest nag. Nolan was a patient man, he would wait for that day. Though he was inclined to agree with the old Queen, there was something not right about the rearing of the young princess. His opinion he kept to himself, as he knew his place, but in his sunken wooden eyes, was a greedy notch of expectation. It was the same look he got when a wild stallion was brought from the high northern plains, one that bucked and blustered like a fierce god of the winds. Nothing brought Nolan more satisfaction than breaking a proud beast into an obedient servant. Yes, he was, above all things, a patient man.
A few weeks short of Caoinlin’s eleventh birthday, she and Begley were atop the western parapet, playing their favorite game, knights and marauders. They were joined in this by some of the other children whose minders also kept their opinions to themselves, but were inclined to think that a child should be given a moment to run and jump and play, when it could be spared.
“O! O! Where is there a brave knight to save me from these black-teethed, stinky-breathed, rotten-faced, bloated-butted . . .”
“Ah, get on with it Tulla!” Owen, the miller’s youngest son and currently a savage plunderer said to Tulla, a buttery maid in the role of a captured princess.
Tulla jerked up her round, slight chin with the indignation of a noblewoman. “I’m a princess, you can’t speak to me like that!”
“And I’m a nasty, violent raider comes across the coldest, iciest seas to kills your king and take all his gold, so I’ll speaks to you how I likes,” Owen snarled.
“Quiet both of you!” Begley pointed his crooked branch at the guard tower door. “You’ll give up our position!”
“O! Won’t someone save me?” Tulla wailed in her most wailiest voice.
Lisburn and Cullen closed up around Tulla and their own bent sticks held before them, on guard.
“Well, where are they?” Owen asked after a moment.
Suddenly, he was set upon from above. Caoinlin toppled on top of Owen with an oof and drew her stick across his throat.
“You’re dead,” she said.
The rest of her soldiers, seeing that Caoinlin had survived the jump from between the crenellations atop the guard tower, followed suit and plummeted upon their foes.
“They’s coming in from above!” Lisburn, the tailor’s son hollered.
A furious clash of sticks against sticks clacked and echoed off the stone walls. A couple guards, posted at the ends of the walls—actual soldiers—watched this battle with passing interest. Soon all the marauders and knights were fallen dead upon the wall, their tongues hanging limp from their mouths, their eyes rolled back in their heads or closed, for a moment, before they cracked open to watch the final battle between the two leaders.
“You shall not have her, you dishonorable fiend!” Caoinlin cried.
“I shall, if you are the only one to stand in my way,” Begley said.
They parried and thrust with more agility and know-how than the other children, who had not watched the King’s men in the lower courtyard nor had they spent countless hours in mimicry of the warriors. The fight ranged back and forth, and for once, it looked as if Begley might best Caoinlin and that Tulla, the princess who smelled vaguely of whey, would be lost to the foreign invader. Begley backed Caoinlin to the guard tower door. Her stick-sword pressed close to her chest, though she pushed back with all her might.
“Yield and beg for mercy,” he said.
“Never.” Caoinlin dropped her elbow against the door latch and the two tumbled backward into the dim space, coming to rest just shy of the top of the stairs. Caoinlin’s stick clattered down the winding, narrow stairwell.
“You’re done in now.” Begley panted and pushed to his feet. His head reeled when he saw how close they’d both come to falling down the stairs and doing themselves serious injury, though Caoinlin only scowled after her pretend-sword and seemed to feel no fear at the prospect of what might’ve happened to their fragile skulls.
Caoinlin rolled over onto her back, her legs kicked out and up. Begley’s branch snapped apart as her foot struck it. She leapt to her feet and launched herself at him. She wrestled him onto his stomach and twisted his arm up behind his back. His hollow cheek flattened to the cool, damp stone.
“Ow! Good enough Cao, let off!”
“Do you surrender?”
The whole of her weight crushed in not totally unpleasant fashion upon him, though this revelation was fairly new to Begley’s young mind and he wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. Caoinlin was twenty pound heavier and at least four inches taller and his arm, in her grip, did hurt.
Caoinlin stood and helped Begley to his feet. He rubbed his shoulder.
“Where’d you learn that bit?” he asked.
“The kick? Gus.” A broad grin lit her face and Begley quickly forgot his sore shoulder.
“When did you see Gus do that? I never saw Gus do that,” he said.
“Yesterday, when you went to water the mares,” she said.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wanted to surprise you.”
“You did that much, sure as sure.”
“Have I angered you?” Caoinlin scowled. Begley smirked. It was funny when Cao’s breeding slipped through, though he would never say as much to her.
“You broke my best sword,” he pointed out.
“I am sorry,” she said.
“I don’t understand why you’re never the princess, Princess,” Tadhg, the footman’s son and thus the most proper of them all, said.
Begley and Caoinlin joined the other children outside on the high wall.
“I told you not to call me that,” Caoinlin said sternly.
Tadhg stuck out his shiny red lip. “But you are a princess.”
“That’s why I can’t be the princess. We’re pretending, if I played the princess, that wouldn’t be pretending that would be . . . realing,” Caoinlin said.
“Well I’m tired of always having to guard the princess.” Owen threw down his stick. “I want to be a knight for once.”
“Alright, you can be knight,” Caoinlin said.
“I think we should play at something new,” Scoth, the fifth daughter of the midwife and the butcher, said.
“What should we play at?” Cullen, son of a prosperous farmer said.
“I should want to be the king next time,” Tadhg said. “It isn’t right, a girl playing king.”
“Cao can play whatever she likes,” Tulla said, turning her up-turned nose down at Tadhg.
“If Tadhg wants to play king he can,” Caoinlin said. “Everyone should have the chance to play King, especially the girls.”
“Why especially?” Tadhg asked, crossing his dimpled arms.
“Because it would especially annoy you,” Begley taunted.
Tadhg scowled at Begley and shook back the loose flaxen curls that hung off his round head.
“And I don’t see why a stable boy should always be leader of the marauders, either,” Tadhg said stiffly. “Even foreigners wouldn’t allow an orphan to lead their invading hoards.”
Begley’s fists clenched.
“Tadhg, you haven’t the faintest notion of what marauders would allow.” Caoinlin crossed her arms and gazed at them all calmly. “I’ve had occasion to hear my father in counsel with his ministers and they said that the plunderers were likely all orphans, because they were so fierce and brutal that they couldn’t possibly have known a mother’s gentle touch. In that, Begley makes the best leader of the marauders. But it does not matter in the least, because when we pretend everyone should be what they want to be and there can be no thought of who they are outside of our imaginations. That’s what pretending is all about, after all.”
The other children nodded and stared at Tadhg until his round shoulders got rounder and he looked away from Begley, who was slighter and skinnier, but whom they all knew would best Tadhg in a fight, as they had seen it twice before.
“Besides, that’s what’s best about pretend,” Caoinlin said, a somber smudge made her gray eyes sparkle like graphite. “Being somebody who you could never be, in real life.”
“I like being a marauder,” Lisburn said, brightly. “You get to plunder and fight and sail in ships.”
“I should like to be a marauder.” Scoth dug her stick into the groves between the stones and lowered her dovish blue eyes.
Owen started to laugh first and soon they were all laughing.
Caoinlin put her lean arm around Scoth’s slight shoulders and said,
“If Scoth wants to be a marauder than she shall be the wildest, most blood-thirsty fiend that ever sacked the five great kingdoms of the northern strand.”
Scoth shrunk from Caoinlin.
“I don’t know, Caoinlin, if I want to be bloodthirsty . . .”
“Every marauder is bloodthirsty,” Lisburn said. “That’s why he’s got to kill everybody.”
“But they don’t always kill everybody,” Scoth said.
“No,” Owen said, “Sometimes theys just kidnaps them, like the princess and holds them for ransoms.”
“Yes, like the prince,” Tadhg said.
“What prince?” Tulla asked.
Tadhg pulled in his lips, drawing their attentions taut.
“What prince?” Tulla pushed him a little and made him stumble.
“Watch it, brute!”
“You watch who you call a brute!” Tulla stalked up and bore down on him. After Caoinlin she was the tallest of them all.
“Caoinlin, tell us about the prince,” Scoth urged.
Caoinlin drew back her broad shoulders and tilted her pretty dark head. “Some prince, somewhere, went missing.”
“You’re not telling it right,” Tadhg said, bristling. “He didn’t simply go missing. He disappeared the night before his wedding.”
“Maybe he saw the bride,” Owen said. He and Lisburn hooted in laughter.
“No. The bride was a beautiful princess from up north. That’s where it happened,” Tadhg said, lowering his voice even as he captured their attention, “up north.”
The children fell into spellbound silence. Their kingdom was the furthest south in the land. The northern kingdoms were the stuff of myth and pretend. Their warriors were said to be the bravest and strongest, honed by battling the ceaseless hoards of foreign marauders. Almost every story was set in the northern and western kingdoms, where things were faraway and unknown and thus, made all their hearts kick to a gallop.
“You see,” Tadhag went on with practiced storytelling ease, “he was the only son of the king. He was great warrior and had even fought Arthor and lived.”
“No, he didn’t,” Owen said. “Nobody’s ever lived against the marauder king.”
“But he did,” Tadhg insisted. “And he kept Arthor’s raiders off his father’s land. So you see how upset everyone was when he disappeared. He was set to marry the fairest princess in all the kingdoms, because he was the strongest and handsomest prince there ever was, everyone says so. She was everything a princess should be, beautiful and obedient—”
Begley snorted, because he knew Caoinlin would not. Tadhag stoically ignored him.
“He was everything a prince should be,” Tadhag continued, “and so you see it was perfect. The most beautiful princess and the bravest of all the princes. But the night before they were set to be wed, a rider came galloping through gates, bloodied and near death. With his last gasping breath, he told the Prince that Arthor had returned with thrice the men and giants—”
“Giants?” Lisburn squeaked.
Tadhg nodded emphatically. “Giants that can crush five men in each hand . . . and wolves. Trained wolves that eat nothing but human flesh. The demon army was burning down every village on its way to the palace, where Arthor planned to kill the prince and take the princess for his own bride. So, of course, the prince rode off to stop him—”
“By himself?” Begley asked, skeptical.
“Sure,” Tadhg said. “He meant to challenge Arthor to a duel.”
“Marauders don’t duel,” Owen said.
“Well, nobody knows because the prince and Arthor and all his boats and giants and wolves all disappeared and nobody’s heard from them. Now his father has sent word to all the kings in the land, asking for their best men to aid him, because he’s going to sail a ship to Arthor’s island and find his son and kill the marauder king once and for all.”